The Saxon period burials from Guildown Avenue, Guildford

A talk by Dr Ceri Falys (TVAS, University of Reading), 21 September 2019

Building work in Guildown Avenue, high on the Hog’s Back to the west side of Guildford, was scheduled to take place in a property adjacent to where a Saxon cemetery had been excavated in 1929. Known as the ‘Guildown Saxon Execution Cemetery’, this was excavated by the Surrey Archaeological Society after the gardener had already disturbed 55 skeletons. In all, 222 skeletons were recovered which appeared to have been deposited in three different phases, plus two further skeletons found before the excavation report was published:

Phase 1 appeared to be pagan. The burials had been arranged around an apparently empty space which may have been the barrow of a single individual. These burials were supine, extended and orientated east-west. They included men, women and children and so represented a normal community. The associated settlement is unknown. Grave goods included pottery urns, glass beakers, a bucket, knives, jewellery, beads, pins and so on, and these dated this phase to the 6th century. 

Phase 2 was designated the ‘execution phase’. The bodies were not aligned east-west but were jumbled up with more than one individual in a single grave. Some were described as ‘mutilated’ which included head wounds and decapitations. Some were lying face-down and there was evidence to show that their hands and feet had been bound. They were nearly all men, with one or two possible females. Little care had been taken with these burials and some had cut into the earlier Saxon graves. At the time this was probably unconsecrated ground. 

Phase 3 consisted of a line of multiple burials of men, neatly laid out, supine and aligned east-west. There were no grave goods but a coin of Edward the Confessor dated these burials to around AD 1043.

The osteology of the skeletons from the 1929 excavation was never published. Some at least were sent to Sir Arthur Keith who replied by way of an unpublished letter. They were feared lost as a result of bombing during World War II but recently 55 skeletons from the 1929 dig have turned up at the Natural History Museum in London.

The adjacent property was excavated by Thames Valley Archaeological Services (TVAS) who hoped to determine the western extent of the cemetery. Apart from some undated postholes and a pit, and a post-medieval ditch, six graves were discovered. Three of these could be attributed to the Phase I pagan cemetery, and three were atypical: two of these were aligned north-south and one north-west to south-east; two contained more than one burial and the burials had unusual limb positions. There was also an ‘empty’ grave that contained a small piece of scabbard and probably represented a disturbed 6th century burial.

The 6th century graves contained the poorly-preserved remains of an individual aged 18-25 years of indeterminate sex together with a knife blade; a woman aged 36-45 years buried with copper alloy tweezers who was about 5 feet and one inch in height, showed degenerative joint disease in her shoulders and back, had a healed rib fracture and evidence of dental plaque and gum disease, while the extent of tooth wear suggested she had been using her mouth as a tool; and a poorly-preserved third individual aged 14-17 years of indeterminate sex who had been buried with two identical brooches, a knife blade and 126 beads of glass, ceramic and stone and so was probably female.

The atypical burials had not been buried near a church and were not east-west aligned. All were men who had been laid supine although the legs were not aligned. There were no grave goods. Two graves held two bodies each and the third a single body. One of the bodies in a double grave had been redeposited after primary burial elsewhere. None showed signs of violent death and there were no head injuries. Carbon-14 dating placed these burials in the 8th to 11th centuries. Although not contemporary, the arrangement of the graves suggested they had been marked in some way.

Carbon-nitrogen isotope analysis showed they had enjoyed an inland diet of meat and vegetables. Strontium-oxygen isotope analysis of their teeth showed they were not local to Surrey but had originated from south-west England, Wales or Ireland, most probably from Cornwall.

Grave 5 was a single burial and Grave 10 contained two skeletons and additional hand and foot bones suggesting there may originally have been two more bodies that were removed at some point. Each body had a bent left leg and an acutely arched foot (as if they had been wearing high heels). Two were aged 26-35 years, one was 36-45 years, and all were about five feet and eight or nine inches in height. All had undertaken regular strenuous activity over a long period, as shown by marks on the upper arm bones, elbows and collar bones. All had suffered traumas and had healed breaks. One had broken ribs; another had broken a kneecap and four vertebrae which had healed to give him a stoop, breaks indicative of a bad fall.

Grave 9 contained two bodies and a ferrous buckle. Both were aged 26-35 years and one was tall at six feet and one inch; like the others, both showed signs of strenuous activity. The lower legs of one body had been crossed. The bones of the other skeleton were not in the right order but represented a jumbled secondary burial of a partially decomposed body. His skull was in the right place but his pelvis was by his feet and his spine was reversed. He had suffered intense trauma to his right side: there was a bump on his skull, he had a dislocated shoulder, a broken arm, broken vertebrae, and both bones had been broken in his lower leg which was a compound fracture that later became infected: somehow he had survived. 

It was originally assumed that these were execution burials, as in Phase 2 of the 1929 excavation. But these burials showed no signs of disrespect. The bodies were well-placed symmetrically in the graves and the reburied body had been arranged to resemble the outline of a normal burial. Did the multiple graves represent family members or friends? They had all lived traumatic lives and survived. They may have been apprentices, slaves (this was the Viking period) or miners bringing metal to the Saxon mint at Guildford. The burials may represent a sub-Roman tradition from south-west England, Cornwall or Wales and a smaller distinct community apart from Saxon Guildford.

The report of this excavation has been published by TVAS. Please send them an email if you would like to receive a copy.

report by Janet Sharpe

Exploring the archaeology, history and heritage of Berkshire